Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
Recyclopedia is a thrilling compilation of important out-of-print volumes by the brainy magpie-poet-mage Harryette Mullen. Its neologistic title refers to the republication of Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge(1995), the three books that preceded Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. It also points to the radiant dynamism of the texts therein. As Mullen notes in the brief but rewarding preface, “The recyclopedia salvages and finds imaginative uses for knowledge. That’s what poetry does when it remakes and renews words, images, and ideas, transforming surplus cultural information into something unexpected.”
This model identifies poetry as process rather than object, as a recombinant, productive dialogue with culture, a talking-back and a taking-into. Such a dialogue involves not just the poet-speaker but multiple speakers, readers, publishers, critics, and artists. Accordingly, Mullen spends two thirds of her preface anecdotally documenting her educational background and publishing history, itineraries traveled and communities joined. Publishers like Lee Ann Brown of Tender Buttons Books and Gil Ott of Singing Horse Press, responsible for the first editions of these books, are figured as collaborators and given at least as much space as Gertrude Stein, Mullen’s primary textual interlocutor. Furthermore, Mullen characterizes her own intellectual perspective as the site of a dialogue that is universal, not in the sense that it is normative, but in the sense that it contains multitudes: “I have written all of these works from my perspective as a black woman, which I believe is no less representative of humanity than any other point of view.”
It is only fitting that such a multivectored statement of poetics should append the three endlessly replete, flexing texts found in this volume. Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge each consist of a single book-length sequence that may be seen as one long poem or multiple brief, untitled poems. Each sequence rejects a dramatic or emotional arc, arriving instead at legibility and potency through sheer accumulation. Although this effect is somewhat diminished in the new edition, which curiously places section breaks at the top of every page, the reader of these tessellated works is still invited to shuffle the individual books’ components to concoct new, stimulating paths and associations. In this way, Mullen relies on her reader to collaborate in the construction of the work.
This radical openness has been a facet of Mullen’s oeuvre since her second book, Trimmings. With Trimmings, Mullen broke with both the form and content of her earlier lyrics, which largely concerned memory and family narratives. These 60 prose poems, on the other hand, respond to the “Objects” section of Stein’s Tender Buttons and investigate the dual trappings in which women go out to meet the world: their clothing and their bodies. Flinty shards of language line up in herky-jerk sentences to act out different parts of speech:
Lips, clasped together. Old leather fastened with a little snap. Strapped, broke. Quick snatch, in a clutch, chased the lady with the alligator purse. Green thief, off relief, got into her pocketbook by hook or crook.
Here, thief and lady meet in a slim alley of sentences built from playground rhymes, epithets, and puns, all compressed to the wondrous efficiency of gossip. The passage’s slangy bawdiness builds on the Freudian association of the pocketbook with female genitalia. Enlaced in this double entendre is the figure of the “green thief”—is he new? sick? envious? cash-colored? Whether he snatches this woman’s purse literally or figuratively is part of the off-kilter riskiness of this ambiguous little poem.
And as this passage illustrates, zones of contact in Trimmings are often also zones of conflict. This double duty is particularly evident in those poems touching on race: “Tender white kid, off-white tan. Snug black leather, second skin. Fits like a love, an utter other uttered.” The phrase-by-phrase composition of this sentence points up the intimacy of race, the boundaries of which mark both a separation and a proximity. Mullen likes to play on both sides of such boundaries, and the ease with which she slips from one side to the other is evident in the poems that evoke both violence and eroticism simultaneously: “Girls in white sat in with blues-saddened slashers. Laced up, frilled to the bone. Semi-automatic ruffle on a semi-formal gown.” Here, the first sentence phonetically rewrites the opening line of a Broadway hit (“My Favorite Things”), emphasizing how neatly one may step from supposedly wholesome family entertainment into the world of slashers, or at least slasher films. This alteration invites the reader to see the girls’ exaggerated virginity—“white,” “laced up, frilled”—as the very quality that makes them vulnerable to the boning knife. Sonically, “frilled to the bone” stands in for both “thrilled to the bone” and “chilled to the bone,” with the former idiom suggesting pleasure and the latter horror. The last phrase in the passage drives the point home, swathing the girls in society’s “semi-automatic” violence as neatly as they are wrapped in a ruffled gown.
The more dire shadings of Trimmings are always a product of wit, frisking with ambiguity until the quick curfew of each poem’s end. Many of the poems in this collection are tilted even more toward sonic play, as illustrated in one segment that reads in its entirety, “Night moon star sun down gown. Night moan stir sin dawn gown.” Not only do the vowel shifts produce two very different tones in these two iterations of the same basic utterance, but the two sentences work within reverse time frames, the first moving backwards from night to sundown, and the second from night forward to dawn. That’s two very different nights lived out in time-lapse in the same set of consonants, in the same nightgown.
S*PeRM**K*T, a Rorschach test of a title that may be pronounced “Spermkit” or “Supermarket,” also demonstrates this wondrously recombinant sonic and semantic energy. In this text, Mullen sets her ear and eye to work on the paradoxically sterile and fruitful aisles of the supermarket, producing collaged prose poems that, in their compartmentalized format, associate consumption anxiety with the loneliness of late-20th-century life. The individual poems correspond loosely to the different aisles of the store:
Aren’t you glad you use petroleum? Don’t wait to be told you explode. You’re not fully here until you’re over there. Never let them see you eat. You might be taken for a zoo. Raise your hand if you’re sure you’re not.
In this tidy poem, knit from denatured slogans for soap and deodorant, Mullen points up the dehumanizing effects of all this enforced cleanliness, in which bodily functions connote human (or animal) vulnerability. As she notes elsewhere, “Every orifice leaks. No cap is tamper proof.” This fact of vulnerability seems to lie always just on the other side of capitalism’s mirror, as is evident in a trip to the pest-control aisle, which shades back uncomfortably into human affairs:
Kills bugs dead. Redundancy is syntactical overkill. A pinprick of peace at the end of the tunnel of a nightmare night in a roach motel. Their noise infects the dream. . . . When we die they will eat us, unless we kill them first.
As this poem continues, it is clear that the strategic “redundancy” of the military-industrial complex has turned the epoch into an endless, tunnel-shaped nightmare of genocide, a long night in the roach motel. “We” think we’re killing the vermin, but if we’re inside the roach motel, we’re stuck in the kill-shelter ourselves.
As in Trimmings, themes of race, sex, and violence hold prominence in S*PeRM**K*T. So does a rollicking humor, which hustles the reader through the sentences at the same breakneck pace with which we absorb and consent to cultural imperatives:
Off the pig, ya dig? He squeals, grease the sucker. Hack that fatback, pour the pork. Pig out, rib the fellas. . . . A pig of yourself, high on swine, cries all the way home. Streak o’ lean gets away cleaner than Safeway chitlings. That’s all, folks.
The jaunty, relentless phrasing and tonal jocularity of this address can be off-putting. Who and what is hailing us, and to what kind of slaughter are we invited? Are we the victims or the knife-wielders in this frantic scene, or are we both of these, cannibals, “A pig of yourself”? The capping phrase, “That’s all, folks,” does not reassure. Though it quotes a harmless cartoon character (who sometimes means harm), it slams the door on the poem in a way that leaves us reeling in the finality of an incident we cannot quite comprehend, in which we, the familiarly addressed “folks,” are implicated. What is this “all”? And is it really all?
S*PeRM**K*T’s immersive world is one of constant, percussive interface. With its manipulative hailings, prescriptions, and proscriptions, this book depicts a massive mass culture in which, despite our individually wrapped lives, the individual doesn’t stand a chance. And yet Muse & Drudge, the final volume recycled in Recyclopedia, alters this dynamic by returning our attention to the individual, a voice among voices, even as it submerges the self in the choral conventions of the blues. This long sequence eschews prose form for short-lined quatrains, four to a page, like endless blues stanzas that never arrive at their refrain. The original formatting of the Singing Horse Press edition allowed the quatrains to float on oversized square pages, which blurred the relationship of each quatrain to the others on the page, and of each page to those preceding and following it. In contrast, Recyclopedia employs a conventional page shape and intrusive section markers to bracket each set of quatrains as a discrete entity, a 16-line lyric. This reformatting both rewrites the text and mystifies it, sending the reader searching for unities where, in the previous edition, there were not even units.
If one reads through the section breaks, however, one can perceive the expanding and contracting properties of Mullen’s aural vision. In Muse & Drudge, the phrasal pacing of previous volumes is sharpened by short lines; on any given page, every mind in the culture club is heard to think aloud. In the opening passage,
Sapphire’s lyre styles
bow lips and legs
whose lives are lonely too
my last nerve’s lucid music
sure chewed up the juicy fruit
you must don’t like my peaches
there’s some left on the tree
you’ve had my thrills
a reefer a tub of gin
don’t mess with me I’m evil
I’m in your sin
clipped bird eclipsed moon
soon no memory of you
no drive or desire survives
you flutter invisible still
Though the second and third stanzas both paraphrase and quote blues songs and juke-joint come-ons, these differ from the scholarly puns of the first stanza and the high lyricism of the last. As the speakers shift among dictions and tones, the addressee is similarly recast, accused in the third stanza, disappearing in the fourth, only to return and “flutter invisible” by the close. Thus this bewitching text conjures not just an ever-shifting cast of speakers but a correspondingly mutable cast of addressees as well, a spectral double chorus accumulating through the book.
The title Muse & Drudge may allude to the poles of women’s—and particularly black women’s—prescribed cultural roles, but the variety and volubility of this book subverts such polarity. Delighting in lingo, slang, pastiche, and patois, Mullen shows how representation is passed back and forth, from speaker to speaker:
sepia bronze mahogany
say froggy jump salty
jelly in a vise
buttered up broke ice
Here, the rigid categories of skin tone in the first line are forgotten by the quatrain’s end, replaced by the dancing, ecstatic body, slangily rendered as “jelly in a vise,” which both butters categories and breaks them down. Elsewhere, and with the same linguistic zeal, rhyme is used to restore distinctions:
my skin but not my kin
my race but not my taste
my state and not my fate
my country not my kunk
Muse & Drudge, in which the neologism “recyclopedia” first appears, is a recyclopedia of its own, churning and recombining language and the constructs and contexts language builds in the same spin cycle.
So dazzling, so overstimulating, so joy-inducing are these three books that one is tempted to use words like “genius” and “virtuoso” to describe Mullen and her accomplishment. Yet such hierarchical praise contradicts both the collaborative rhetoric Mullen uses to introduce her textual production and the communal nature of the texts themselves. Recyclopedia invites us to consider these three books not as successive chapters of a poet’s career but as a simultaneity of language, a replicable and mutable Big Bang of thematic, linguistic, syntactic, and formal combination. Placed in such productive proximity, each volume expands beyond its own boundaries to form a compound, tricksterlineal space.